Full EpisodeFox Tales

Intelligent, resilient and bold, the Red fox can change its behavior to thrive in new environments, from urban locales to the Arctic tundra. Fox Tales reveals new scientific research that offers a fascinating look into the secret life of red foxes.

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♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ [ Wind howling ] ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ NARRATOR: Each spring, millions of new red fox pups enter the world.

Regardless of where they're born, the dark, earthy intimacy of their natal den is similar the world over.

But every family's story is different.

♪♪ Red foxes have been running up and down this coastline for thousands of years.

But this vixen is unusual.

She's a uniquely-colored and rarely-seen kind of red fox.

Her striking coat is ideal camouflage for this environment -- her home territory.

She's roamed it for years.

But now, she's sticking close to one specific spot.

Her pups are growing restless.

They're eager to break free from the confines of their den.

Now, under their mother's watchful eye, they emerge into a bright, new world.

♪♪ At five weeks old, these three pups will spend more and more time outside the safety of their den.

They will discover a place carefully chosen by their mother, and it's perfect for them.

♪♪ ♪♪ Over the next six months, we'll follow these pups as they grow from wobbly-legged runts to the most cat-like of canids.

Their first months will be spent here, hundreds of feet above the ocean, on a rocky outcrop.

Their mother has found an ideal playpen -- a grassy meadow hidden in the rocks.

It keeps them safe and out of sight from predators.

Here, they'll get the chance to stretch their legs and adjust to life on the outskirts of a small fishing village on an island in the Atlantic Ocean.

♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ [ Bell dinging ] ♪♪ [ Fox pups whimpering, growling playfully ] ♪♪ ♪♪ This might look like cute play, but there's more going on than meets the eye.

[ Fox pups growling playfully ] With each bite and grab, these pups are battling for dominance.

[ Growling continues ] The victor gains all the rewards, like first dibs on food and the best sleeping spots -- body-building perks that sharpen a pup's chance of surviving to adulthood.

This battle may finish aboveground, but it began for these youngsters, like it does for all red fox pups, weeks earlier underground.

Sandra Alvarez-Betancourt is the first scientist to gain a unique perspective into the underground world of foxes.

She's spent several years analyzing 1,000 hours of fox home movies filmed inside a red fox den in the wild.

ALVAREZ-BETANCOURT: It's really hard to get to see all these behaviors, and I was the first one, the lucky one to get to see them and try to look at their behavior and extract as much information as I could from them.

NARRATOR: Sandra discovered that red fox pups develop their social hierarchy much earlier than anyone suspected.

ALVAREZ-BETANCOURT: From the third week on, once they have enough strength to walk, actually, they start fighting.

So the first social interactions they show between theirselves are aggressive interactions.

One of the most surprising things was to see the vixen not interacting with them when they were fighting.

NARRATOR: These tiny pups' fight for dominance will establish a pecking order that will last their lifetime.

These are serious battles.

One in five pups does not make it of the den alive.

ALVAREZ-BETANCOURT: You think, oh they wouldn't hurt a fly.

Like, they're just cute little puppies.

But when you actually see them behaving like this, you understand that they are wild animals and that they have to develop all these social behaviors that are so important for them later in life.

[ Fox pups snarling ] Even if she doesn't intervene when they are fighting, you can see that the mother always cares for them.

You also see the tender part, the nice part.

It's not just fighting.

Yeah, it's a privilege to be able to see these kinds of things.

NARRATOR: Red foxes can make a home in the countryside, on the coast, and in some of the most unexpected places.

♪♪ Over the last century, red foxes have been stealthily moving into North American cities.

But only now are we starting to take notice of them.

DRAKE: There's not a lot of urban red fox research going on in North America.

So we don't know how prevalent red fox are here.

But I would be very, very surprised if there are not red fox in most, if not all, North American cities.

[ Siren wails ] We really don't know what these animals are doing in other cities, and we're still trying to figure out exactly what the heck they're doing in Madison, to tell you the truth.

NARRATOR: David Drake is one of the few scientists investigating urban red foxes in North America.

He's been studying the success strategies of urban canids for three years.

And what he is discovering may surprise a lot of city dwellers.

DRAKE: One of the things, I think, that surprised us with foxes is just how compatible they seem to be with people.

They don't seem to be bothered by people, they're living right in people's backyards, they're under people's decks, they're denning under people's garages, and they're certainly moving up and down the neighborhoods, using the sidewalks, streets, and yards, as well.

NARRATOR: David and his team are gathering some of the first information on urban foxes in North America by live-trapping both red foxes and coyotes.

They attach radio collars and ear tags to each animal to learn how many there are and how they're moving through Madison.

♪♪ DRAKE: The coyotes here in the city are tending to concentrate most of their time and activity in the green spaces within that urban landscape.

So, parks and reserves and things like that.

Fox on the other hand tend to spend most of their time in these developed landscapes, like neighborhoods.

And so, the question is, are the fox in the neighborhoods because the coyotes typically are not?

We're still trying to figure that puzzle out.

♪♪ Animals are moving into the cities, and they're coming to us as much as we might be coming to them.

And we're going to discover that a lot of these animals are probably more adaptable than we've ever given them credit for.

[ Dog barking ] MAN: Hey!

DRAKE: Maybe it's out of necessity they have to do that.

But it also might be that cities are an okay place to make a living as an animal.

NARRATOR: Like many wild animals, red foxes have come to the city to explore a new way of life.

[ Car alarm chirps ] What they're finding is a world rich with all they could ever need, not just to survive but to thrive.

DRAKE: It is a very nice neighborhood we're standing in right now.

But it is also a conveyor belt of food for them.

Think about all the rabbits that you have in your neighborhood or all the squirrels or small mammals.

All of those are prey items for fox.

What we've found is that they've maintained a pretty natural diet.

So, what you'd expect red fox to eat out in the country, we're finding them eating here mostly in the city.

And, typically, what we find is that they tend to be a little bit heavier and healthier because there's just so much food here for them to eat.

They're not hurting for a meal, so to speak.

NARRATOR: Vixens are known to keep the areas around their dens very neat, to give little sign that pups are underground.

But something changes about six weeks after the pups are born.

Once they're are outside more often, feeding and fighting over food, the area becomes much messier.

And their sloppy housekeeping can be a magnet for other animals.

[ Fox barks ] ♪♪ [ Coyote sniffing, approaching ] At three times their size, an urban coyote is a formidable threat to a red fox.

[ Coyote sniffing ] [ Fox barks ] This mother is right to be so concerned.

These pups are an easy meal for predators.

One swipe of that coyote's paw could kill a pup in a heartbeat.

[ Fox barks ] Her alarm shrieks warn her pups -- 'Danger, stay underground!'

♪♪ [ Fox barks ] But something else is going on here.

She's taunting the coyotes... [ Fox barks ] ...baiting them to chase her in a last-ditch effort... [ Coyote growls, fox barks ] ...to lure them away and save her pups.

[ Dog barking ] MAN: Hey! Let's go!

Hey! Hey!

[ Barking continues ] NARRATOR: Most homeowners are oblivious to the stories that play out in their backyards, but for the creatures that live alongside us, life is filled with drama.

[ Birds calling ] ♪♪ ♪♪ Cat-like whiskers, teeth, and paws, combined with their canid instincts, make red foxes so versatile, they can make a home almost anywhere.

STEPHEN: I think the most misunderstood thing about foxes is you always hear how cunning and sly they are.

I just find this very hard to visualize how this relates to a fox.

To me, they're such an intelligent animal.

They're very adaptable, they're very successful.

NARRATOR: Stephen Harris is one of the world's leading authorities on red foxes.

He's spent over 50 years studying their social dynamics.

But he's never seen a fox family anywhere like this before, where only our cameras can capture their hiding place.

STEPHEN: Oh, there's a cub.

A cub's appeared, a really dark-faced little cub.

They don't normally appear aboveground until they're about four weeks old, so I think that looks, to me, as a bit nearer six weeks.

The vixen looks lovely. Lovely animal.

[ Fox pups whimpering playfully ] Foxes are very good parents, actually.

You get this image that they're not, but she spends a lot of time playing with them, grooming them, looking after them.

Very affectionate.

NARRATOR: Making sure the pups are fed is the vixen's main role.

As she weans them, she works overtime to bring in a variety of prey, to feed her pups and teach them how to recognize a good meal.

STEPHEN: Oh, impressive piece of fish, I have to say.

[ Birds calling ] NARRATOR: All this protein makes them stronger, but they're still vulnerable.

One bone swallowed the wrong way could finish them.

And when it comes to finding food for her growing family, a mother is not alone.

♪♪ ♪♪ STEPHEN: For a long time, people thought the father played no role in the lives of red foxes.

In fact, he's extremely important to them.

He spends a lot of his time off hunting and bringing food to the pups.

Might take it directly to the pups, or he might leave it nearby for the vixen or the cubs to find it.

So it's quite common to see food hidden all around the den site.

[ Fox pups crying ] ♪♪ And he spends lots of time with them.

♪♪ ♪♪ NARRATOR: Each year, these loyal partners come together to raise a new set of pups.

Like most parents, they know they have to be vigilant and ever ready to protect their young.

[ Bird calling ] [ Fox snarls ] [ Bird calling ] ♪♪ [ Birds cawing ] ♪♪ ♪♪ STEPHEN: You always think of the male as being dominant in a fox social group.

Roald Dahl had Fantastic Mr. Fox.

But, of course, he missed the point.

The group cohesion is down to the female.

She feeds the cubs, she dominates how the group operates, she is the core strength for that group, and the dominant female is the most important animal there.

So, I think it is a fantastic Mrs. Fox.

♪♪ ♪♪ NARRATOR: At eight weeks, our pups' faces start to fill out and their fur begins to take on their adult color.

♪♪ These pups are also noticing something different -- their mother is spending less time with them.

♪♪ Their parents need to spend more time away hunting to feed them.

They leave food caches around the den to tide the pups over between visits.

But the pups need to search them out.

STEPHEN: It's very hard to know whether the mother actually teaches the cubs anything.

They'll see her doing things and might learn and watch what she does, but, really, they always seem to be on their own.

They learn things for themselves.

NARRATOR: On their own, driven by hunger and boredom, the pups begin venturing further from the safety of their den.

♪♪ [ Birds calling ] ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ NARRATOR: This is a not an easy place to grow up.

Nature's beauty exists alongside a harsher reality.

♪♪ One of our pups failed to make it through a night of stormy weather.

For a mother, each of her young is precious, but familiarity with death runs deep in a predator's consciousness.

This awareness began in our pups as they fought for dominance inside the den.

But now, a sibling's death will drive that point home.

♪♪ ♪♪ For some animals, death can have different meanings than it has for us.

♪♪ ♪♪ Our dark male and red female pup are learning it's a tough world for a predator.

Like their mom, they will have to do whatever they must to survive.

[ Birds crying ] ♪♪ [ Whale sings ] [ Birds crying ] ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ Every summer in Newfoundland, something astounding happens -- the capelin boil-up.

Millions of these little fish come to the beach to spawn.

And everyone comes out to share in the bounty.

[ Indistinct talking ] ♪♪ Come late summer, our two surviving pups have grown to almost two thirds their adult size.

Their trademark white-tipped tail acts like a rudder and balances them so they can move about these rocks with ease.

♪♪ They're teenagers now, living off the generosity of their parents, who continue to leave food caches for them to feast on.

♪♪ The siblings have not yet developed into the loners they are sure to become as adults.

They still spend a considerable amount of time in each others company.

Their mother comes to check on them, but the family dynamic has changed.

Their father is no longer tolerant of his young... ...so he stays away.

Their mother's visits tend to be short, and then she's off again, leaving the pups to fend for themselves as darkness falls.

[ Wind whistling ] [ Insects chirping ] [ Whales singing ] [ Fox pup whimpers ] With their cat-like eyes, the pups see well in the dim evening light.

But it's what they hear in the darkness that likely causes them the most concern.

[ Insects chirping ] [ Coyote howls ] [ Wings flap ] ♪♪ [ Coyotes howling ] ♪♪ [ Branch snaps ] [ Rustling ] [ Animal calls ] [ Fox pup whimpers ] [ Animal calls ] [ Insects chirping ] [ Coyotes howling ] [ Fox pup whimpers ] It's a scary time for our pups.

To survive, they need to be strong and independent at the tender age of three months.

But red foxes are resilient.

Perhaps more than other kinds of foxes, like arctic or swift, red foxes are masters at figuring out how to change and adapt their behavior to survive, a remarkable skill that's helping them move into new territory.

[ Bird calling ] Red foxes are expanding their range further and further north.

And the arrival of the red fox has real consequences for their Arctic cousins.

ROTH: The arctic foxes have been here since the glaciers receded, which was 10,000 years ago.

I've not been studying that long.

I've been studying them up here the past 22 years.

Caribou on the mud flat there?

PILOT: Yes, it is. Okay, caribou at 10:00.

ROTH: We've been surveying all the dens in this area.

We've got about 90 dens on the tundra that we monitor every year to figure out changes in the arctic fox and red fox populations.

And den sites are quite limited, because the tundra is a very wet environment.

You have permafrost under the ground, so when all the snow melts, there's no place for the water to go.

And these gravel ridges are beautiful places for these foxes to build their dens, because they're very sandy and the permafrost is much deeper.

PILOT: There's foxes. There's foxes.

ROTH: Yeah, look at that!

So, the way these arctic foxes operate is they have very large litters.

The largest litters of any mammal.

And all these pups need a lot of food.

You can see lots of remains of fresh prey.

Most of these dens have old goose bones from previous years, so you can tell that they've been using these dens for quite some time.

NARRATOR: Generations of these big families use the same den sites for up to 300 years.

Dr. Jim Roth has shown that this repeated use shapes the site into an oasis that can be seen on the tundra up to a mile away.

This makes it much easier for him to find all the dens in his study area, a vast land of shallow lakes, emptiness, and polar bears.

PILOT: Okay, so now we should be heading to the... NARRATOR: Jim figures that the three hours he spends in the air surveying dens each summer is the most important part of his research for the entire year.

PILOT: All right, I've got E39 coming up on the left, grass, no willows.

NARRATOR: Each den brings him another piece of the puzzle about how red foxes are expanding their reach into arctic fox territory.

ROTH: We know that, in the past, red foxes have used this den.

But it looks like the arctic foxes are back on it.

Arctic foxes look very different from red foxes.

They've got these very short legs, short ears, short, blunt snout.

It's just an adaptation for dealing with the harshness of this environment, the strong selective pressures that were placed on foxes when they expanded up into the north.

That's why they have such small appendages and small ears, to conserve body heat.

They're really curious critters, these arctic foxes.

They're so bold.

♪♪ NARRATOR: Their brazenness may come from having few predators in this landscape, or it could be that living in a big family emboldens them.

Either way, it didn't take these pups long to walk right up to our motion-sensor cameras and have their way with them.

♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ [ Rustling ] ♪♪ ♪♪ Nowhere on Earth are the effects of the warming climate more deeply felt than in the Arctic.

With warming temperatures come change, distress, and opportunity.

ROTH: Red foxes have occurred in the arctic for hundreds of years, just not in very big numbers.

But now we have documented red foxes out in the tundra reproducing for several years in a row, using the dens that, historically, the arctic foxes have been using.

So, the fact that red foxes are using more and more of these dens [sighs] may not bode well for arctic foxes.

Because we know that red foxes do kill arctic foxes.

NARRATOR: Arctic fox numbers have been in decline for several years now.

Scientists are trying to figure out if this is due to the encroachment of red foxes or if other factors are at play in this changing environment, like food availability.

♪♪ ROTH: This time of year, there's plenty of food around, plenty of geese around.

They're not really needing to compete for food.

In the wintertime, it's a completely different story.

NARRATOR: In winter, the arctic fox's color changes to white.

Thick fur covers their entire body.

Even their feet are padded with fur to insulate them from the cold.

They're perfectly built for this landscape, where temperatures can reach 70 below.

Red foxes aren't as equipped for the cold.

ROTH: Winter is when food is limited, winter is when it's a hard time to survive.

That's when the animals feel the need to escalate if they're in danger of starving.

So, I've found pieces of arctic fox at red fox dens.

A white paw, a white tail.

I don't know how much they consume the arctic foxes when they kill them, but I think that one that was killed in front of a bunch of photographers, got all that press, it did look like the red fox was eating the arctic fox.

And that was, you know, November, snow on the land, the geese were all gone, and it was probably -- probably pretty hungry.

[ Goose honking ] Changes in the arctic climate are creating opportunities that red foxes are really well-adapted to exploit.

Red foxes are smart.

They can make a living anywhere in the world.

♪♪ [ Birds chirping ] ♪♪ NARRATOR: Foxes are solitary hunters.

Unlike other canids such as wolves and coyotes, fox parents don't encourage their young to join them on hunts.

So, figuring out how to feed themselves will be a matter of trial and error for our two pups.

♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ The first food young pups find for themselves tends to be a little less mobile.

Worms, insects, and berries are a mainstay of a young fox's diet.

And though these pups were born into a land lacking in worms, lucky for them, Newfoundland is rich with berries.

♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ These easy meals won't be around for long.

But they'll give the pups enough nourishment to survive until their hunting skills improve.

There are places in the world where food is so easy to come by that hunting skills are not required.

♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ Stephen Harris doesn't have to travel far to observe foxes.

They come right into his back garden.

STEPHEN: I just think it's absolutely fascinating watching them, watching their lives, how they change over the years.

I've learned more about foxes just watching them in my garden than actually all the scientific studies I've done.

Because you follow every day of their lives, you see how they change, you see how they interact, you see who's dominant, who's breeding, who's not.

And it really is like a little vulpine soap opera.

So, that's our nightly routine.

I think it's wonderful.

That one's tagged. It's one of the males.

If you look, it's got a tag in each ear, and he's one of the subordinate males.

There's another one come through -- number three.

That's another one of the subordinate males.

What the foxes like is exactly what we have in many British cities.

There's cover, there's places for them to breed, there's plenty of food.

They get quite a bit of food provisioned for them, as well.

About 70%, 80% of the diet of these guys out there is actually provided for them by local householders.

ALEX: Now, what have I got for you, hey?

What have I got?

STEPHEN: In Britain, people get great joy from feeding animals in their garden.

It's different to what you might do in North America, because, of course, we don't have rabies in this country, we don't have many other diseases animals might convey.

But, also, we don't have to worry about if we feed foxes, will bears or anything dangerous come into the garden.

♪♪ ALEX: They're not tame.

I don't encourage them to hand-feed or come into the house or have interaction with us.

But they do know that if I go out there, I'm fine.

STEPHEN: Sometimes here we'll feed them.

Once they feed, they'll be straight off, they'll go to someone else who's feeding down the road, and then they'll come back later in the evening to see if there's anything more in the garden for them.

SUE: I love them.

Some of them sit and look at you.

They actually watch and they wait.

You know, 'It's time for my food, please.'

This is the sausages that have been cut up for the babies.

And there's larger sausages for the older ones.

And this is the jam and peanut butter sandwiches for the badgers, which sometimes the foxes pinch.

Well, a friend of mine was feeding a fox with the sausage food, and I started doing it.

And the sausages, obviously, have to be fresh every day.

NARRATOR: Sue Lester and her husband, Bob, are nature fans.

They feed foxes for two or three hours every night.

Their reward?

Having their own nature show play out in their backyard.

ANNA: Out! Shoo! Go! Get out!

SUE: Anna's next door shouting at them.

BOB: Is she?

PRIOR: They are a type of vermin.

I can't leave the doors open in the house in the summer because I'm afraid of the foxes coming in, because that's what they do.

You have to be very careful because they go in your bin and spread the rubbish all over the place.

[ Crow caws ] I wouldn't like to see them slaughtered, just kind of gone, really.

And the trouble is, it's not just the odd one.

They are in huge numbers now.

[ Siren wails ] NARRATOR: There are more than a quarter of a million adult red foxes in Great Britain, and many of them live in cities.

♪♪ STEPHEN: Now, in this area, we might have 40 to 60 adult foxes per square kilometer.

MAN: There's that fox again.

WOMAN: Those foxes are always around here.

STEPHEN: Cities elsewhere in the world probably are not quite as many.

Some cities are getting foxes now.

In Britain, anywhere you've got this 1930s suburbia, you're gonna have quite high densities of foxes.

NARRATOR: Red foxes are one of the largest wild carnivores in Great Britain, and as such, they rule the streets and own the night.

[ Indistinct talking ] [ Glass breaks ] STEPHEN: Nowadays, you look at a fox and you would certainly think of it being very successful.

[ Horn honking in distance ] It's actually one of the most widespread land mammals in the world.

I think one of the problems we have as people is we don't like other animals that are successful.

We think, 'Okay, there's too many of them.

They need controlling.' Well, why?

Just because they're successful doesn't mean they have to be controlled.

[ Siren wailing ] ♪♪ NARRATOR: Foxes aren't the only wild animals thriving in British backyards.

♪♪ STEPHEN: At night, the badgers will turn up, as well.

So,. lots of animals will take the food.

NARRATOR: Foxes prefer to keep clear of the badgers, so they wait their turn to eat.

♪♪ Fifty years of dedicated research have given Steve a rare window into these enigmatic creatures.

His findings have shed new light on their relationships, and his passion for understanding red fox society is as strong now as when he began.

STEPHEN: In Britain, we have bigger litters and also bigger social groups.

There's many more interactions between them, and there's much more hierarchy there.

That's why we see such interesting social interactions which you don't see in North America.

Very often, they're signaling with their tails and their ears and the shape of their face.

They rush over and they put themselves low, they wag their tail, they've got a silly grin on their face, their ears are back, that's a submissive greeting posture.

They carry their tails in different positions, particularly when you have more than one together.

Sometimes they'll start lifting their tails a bit to signal who's dominant.

So, yes, there are subtle messages, but it is actually quite complex.

So, we're trying to unravel it now, but I'm not really sure I fully understand what signal they're giving each other.

[ Siren wails ] They are a fascinating species to study.

They're so adaptable, so many things change all the time, and you think you know it all, and then you realize you know very little.

♪♪ ♪♪ NARRATOR: Red foxes in Bristol live in large family groups for years.

But that is an adaptation to city life.

It's different for other foxes, like our six-month-old Newfoundland pups, nearly full-grown and bursting with adolescent energy.

For them, autumn signals the time to leave the safety of their parents' territory.

♪♪ But not all pups leave.

Our vixen has allowed her female pup to stay in their home turf.

It's a carefree life until her mother puts her to work helping to catch food for her new siblings.

♪♪ For males, it's best to be bold and strike out on their own.

And for that, they gotta move.

♪♪ For our dark pup, the journey to a new territory will have many challenges that test his mettle.

[ Truck horn blares ] ♪♪ [ Horn honks ] ♪♪ ♪♪ [ Dog barking ] ♪♪ ♪♪ [ Barking continues ] ♪♪ [ Thunder crashes ] Alone, far from the only world he's ever known, our pup is at a crossroads.

But there's no turning back.

♪♪ [ Thunder rumbling ] ♪♪ ♪♪ [ Dog barking ] ♪♪ ♪♪ It's been a long, hard road.

But our dark pup is betting the risk of leaving his parent's territory is worth the chance to start his own family.

As he moves into new territory, he's continuing the tradition of his ancestors -- to forge new ground.

It's the smartest of creatures, the most tenacious and adaptable, that flourish in changing times.

Whether city or country, the cold tundra or a rocky beach, red foxes will always find a place to call home.

Narrator: They say an elephant never forgets.

Do you remember me?

But can animals really form lasting bonds with us?

This is a totally wild cheetah. Why did she let me do that?

Narrator: It's time to reunite some remarkable friends... Aspinall: I honestly didn't know how Kwibi was going to react.

Narrator: ...to see what happens next.

Narrator: They say an elephant never forgets.

Narrator: They say an elephant never forgets.

Narrator: They say an elephant never forgets.

Narrator: They say an elephant never forgets.

Narrator: They say an elephant never forgets.

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